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Capitol Reef National Park is a narrow strip running north-south for 160 kilometers in the middle of southern Utah. Getting there involves a long but very scenic drive from Bryce Canyon via State Route 12, through the northern edge of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, to Route 24 that traverses the park along the Fremont River. The alternative route is a less scenic drive from Interstate 70 to the north via State Routes 72 or 24. Either way, it’s worth the trip.
I found Capitol Reef to be the most spectacular of the four parks I visited in southern Utah. Particularly at sunset, the red landscape takes on a fiery, other-worldly effulgence. Change the blue sky to pink, and you could easily imagine you’re on Mars.
The trailhead for the Chimney Rock Trail, on Route 24 between the park’s west entrance and the visitor center, is a great place to watch the red rocks glow at sunset. The “strenuous” 5.6 kilometer trail ascends Chimney Rock, but the beginning of the trail to the foot of the formation is an easy enough walk.
Gold prospectors headed for California gave the park its name. They found the “reefs”— ridges of cliffs— that loomed from the desert floor an obstacle to westward travel. Although today the word “reef” usually has an aquatic context, in the nineteenth century it meant an impassable barrier on land. Some of the rock formations they saw were white domes that somewhat resemble the rotunda of the United States Capitol building— thus “Capitol Reef.”
Capitol Reef occupies what geologists call the Waterpocket Fold. It’s a buckle in the Earth’s crust originally built from sedimentary layers laid down over some 200 million years, first by an ancient ocean and then by lakes and flooding rivers. The forces that built the Rocky Mountains between 50 and 70 million years ago created a large fault in the sediments. Earthquakes lifted the west side of the fault over 2,100 meters higher than the east side, and jumbled the sedimentary layers.
Recent erosion— geologists consider anything that happened 10 to 15 million years ago “recent”— revealed and enhanced the multi-colored cliffs, canyons, and domes. It also created “waterpockets,” basins in the rock that collected water. Thus the name, “Waterpocket Fold.”
Capitol Reef has only two paved roads. State Route 24 crosses the northern section of the park. The Scenic Drive intersects it at the visitor center, and extends 16 kilometers south.
Two unpaved spur roads off the Scenic Drive provide partial access to the canyons of Grand Wash and Capitol Gorge. If the weather is good, you can (and should) carefully drive on them in a normal car. The rest of the park, extending some 34 kilometers south of the paved roads, is accessible only to backpackers and high-clearance 4-wheel drive vehicles. But there’s plenty to see on the accessible roads.
Beginning in 1880, several Mormon families built a settlement they called Junction at the confluence of Sulphur Creek and the Fremont River. These families reputedly were polygamists who hid from federal officers intent on enforcing an 1887 anti-polygamy law that dissolved the Mormon Church organization, authorized the seizure of its assets, and imposed large fines on polygamists.
(Mainly because of objections to polygamy among the Mormons who made up the majority of the territory’s population, Congress rejected six attempts at Utah statehood beginning in 1849. In response to the climate of moral outrage over polygamy that led to increasing persecution of Mormons, the Latter Day Saints Church president published a manifesto in 1890 ending the practice of “plural marriage.” Since Mormons consider their president a prophet, he legitimized the manifesto for the faithful by insisting that the change in fundamental doctrine was a revelation he received from Jesus. Whatever the source, it cleared the way for Congress to pass a statehood bill in 1896.)
The town of Junction was renamed Fruita early in the twentieth century, in honor of the 22 orchards the families planted. Fruita was abandoned when the National Park Service bought it in 1955 and made it the park’s administrative center. But the orchards still bear cherries, apricots, pears, and peaches, which visitors can pick during the appropriate seasons. You can eat all the fruit you want while you’re in the orchards, but the Park Service charges a fee for taking fruit away. The historic site is on Route 24, just east of the park’s visitor center.
As in other Utah parks, the Mormons viewed the distinctive features they encountered through the lens of their faith. They imagined one large red rectangular rock near the south end of the Scenic Drive as an Egyptian Temple. They saw a 2,000-meter-high rock dome as a Golden Throne. At some times of the day it indeed takes on a distinct gold hue.
Other parks in southern Utah: